Faculty Authors Showcase their Works at the 20th Annual Texas Book Festival

image of logoBookworms, foodies, artists and scholars will partake in an annual rite of fall here in Austin: The Texas Book Festival! This Texas-size literary event will take place in and around the State Capitol and nearby venues on Oct. 17-18.

A record 300 authors are coming to the festival—the largest number in its 20-year history.  Here are just few highlights featuring education outreach events and top faculty authors from colleges and schools throughout the Forty Acres. Dates, times and locations will be available on the Texas Book Festival website later this month. Use this hashtag to join the conversation: #TXBookFest

Special Events

image of book and authorThe Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken Wendell Pierce, Actor and Tony Award-Winning Producer
Moderated by Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans, devastating many of the city’s neighborhoods, including Pontchartrain Park, the home of Wendell Pierce’s family and the first African American middle-class subdivision in New Orleans. Pierce and his family were some of the lucky ones: They survived and were able to ride out the storm at a relative’s house 70 miles away. Read more here…

About the author: Wendell Pierce was born in New Orleans and is an actor and Tony Award-winning producer. He starred in all five seasons of the acclaimed HBO drama The Wire and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for the role. He also starred in the HBO series Treme and has appeared in many feature films including Selma, Ray, Waiting to Exhale, and Hackers. Since Hurricane Katrina, Pierce has been helping to rebuild the flood-ravaged Pontchartrain Park neighborhood in New Orleans.

15th Annual Youth Fiction Writing Contest
Co-hosted by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement

writingcontestThe Fiction Writing Contest encourages and rewards creative writing in Texas schools. Junior and high school Texas students are invited to submit a piece of original fiction, no more than 2,000 words in length. The submissions are judged by Texas Book Festival authors, local educators, and leaders in the publishing industry. Read more here…

Place and Race, a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Leonard Moore, senior associate vice president, DDCE 

image of authorsAuthors Wendy S. Walters and Jason Sokol discuss the dynamic and complicated course of civil rights over the past several decades in America. Racism emerges in unexpected locations, and the ways in which people resist, cope, and consent are not predictable.

Margo Jefferson
Moderated by Shirley Thompson, Departments of Anthropology and Africa and African Diaspora

image of author Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson recounts growing up in a small region of African-American upper class families in Chicago during the civil rights movement and the genesis of feminism. With this point of view, Jefferson discusses race, identity, and American culture, through her own lens. Read more here…


Author Appearances

image of book and author Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City
Javier Auyero, Department of Sociology

Austin, Texas, is renowned as a high-tech, fast-growing city for the young and creative, a cool place to live, and the scene of internationally famous events such as SXSW and Formula 1. But as in many American cities, poverty and penury are booming along with wealth and material abundance in contemporary Austin. Rich and poor residents lead increasingly separate lives as growing socioeconomic inequality underscores residential, class, racial, and ethnic segregation. Read more here…

Reagan: The Life
H.W. Brands, Professor, Department of History

Image of author and bookRonald Reagan today is a conservative icon, celebrated for transforming the American domestic agenda and playing a crucial part in ending communism in the Soviet Union. In his masterful new biography, H. W. Brands argues that Reagan, along with FDR, was the most consequential president of the twentieth century. Reagan took office at a time when the public sector, after a half century of New Deal liberalism, was widely perceived as bloated and inefficient, an impediment to personal liberty. Reagan sought to restore democracy by bolstering capitalism. In Brands’s telling, how Reagan, who voted four times for FDR, engineered a conservative transformation of American politics is both a riveting personal journey and the story of America in the modern era. Read more here…

Destiny of Democracy: The Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library Mark K. Updegrove, Director, LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

image of book and authorPresident Lyndon B. Johnson played a monumental role in America’s quest for civil rights. The legacy of those efforts reached a crescendo from April 8 through 10, 2014, as the LBJ Presidential Library hosted a historic Civil Rights Summit to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. A host of luminaries—including President Barack Obama, the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office, and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter—came to the LBJ Library to recognize the progress made in the country’s long, often troubled, journey toward civil rights. Read more here…


New Historical Novel by Former UT English Professor to Release this Fall

Harris headshotFormer UT Austin fiction writing and modern literature professor Elizabeth Harris will be releasing a novel Mayhem:  Three Lives of a Woman (Gival Press) this fall.

The historical novel, scheduled to drop Oct. 5, 2015, engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.

Winner of the 2014 Gival Press Fiction Award, the book follows two stock farmers in 1936 Texas who are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences, the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.

“A great novel gives us Genesis, and so Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman calls a world into being. We get not only the odor and crackle of rural Texas beginning a hundred years ago, but also the spirits of that time and place. We suffer with a rancher’s wife, a woman catastrophically misunderstood. Violence proves inevitable — but then comes the real miracle. Elizabeth Harris summons up not one world but several, in rich and moving succession. Itʼs as if redemption were sympathy: as if to peer deeply into anyone is to understand everyone. If this sounds less like a God and more like a great storyteller, well, thatʼs what weʼve got. Harris squeezes palaver and tears from her Texas clay, even while making sure we see the gifted hands at work.”

— John Domini, author of A Tomb on the Periphery and other novels, as well as stories, criticism, and poetry.

Harris’ stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind,  The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Her first book, The Ant Generator, received the University of Iowa’s coveted short fiction award.

The Writers’ League of Texas recently interviewed Elizabeth Harris about her favorite writers. She stated: “People ask you who your favorite writers are when they want you to talk about reading, and I name some books and their writers, but I seldom love everything a writer has written. I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, and I love many different books for different reasons.”

As yet untitled, Elizabeth’s current project is another contemporary novel with a historical setting. She and her husband, who are birders, divide their time between the Texas Coast and Austin.

Preview an excerpt of Mayhem at: www.elizabethharriswriter.com.




History Professor Wins Prestigious Book Award for ‘In Search of the Amazon’

This post, authored by Susanna Sharpe, first appeared on the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) website.  

garfieldHistory Professor Seth Garfiel received the prestigious Bolton-Johnson Prize Honorable Mention Award for his book In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region (Duke, 2013).

The award was announced earlier this month at the annual conference of the American Historical Association in New York City. According to the website of the Conference on Latin American History, the Bolton-Johnson Prize is given to the best book in English on Latin American history published in the previous year, with honorable mention given to “an additional distinguished work deemed worthy” by the prize committee.

Criteria for the award include “sound scholarship, grace of style, and importance of the 978-0-8223-5585-4_prscholarly contribution.” The citation read at the awards ceremony praises Garfield’s work on a complex and often misunderstood topic: “Seth Garfield brings the best methodologies of social and political history into dialogue with new debates over environmental and transnational history. Examining the impact of World War II and the United States’ need for rubber on Brazilian policy in the Amazon, Garfield underscores the role of labor migration from the drought-stricken Northeast and competing efforts by military, medical, religious, and industrial leaders to forge a rational male workforce. The book traces transformations in ideas about race, gender, and family as central components in capitalist exploitation as well as in conceptualizations of ‘nature’ and ‘national resources.’ If contemporary environmental movements portray the Amazon as a pristine forest inhabited by traditional people, Garfield’s book lays bare the heavy presence of people and policy that continually made the Tropics.”

In Search of the Amazon was also selected by Knowledge Unlatched for a pilot open-access program for scholarly books. According to the organization’s website, through this pilot project, Knowledge Unlatched is seeking “a financially sustainable route to Open Access for large numbers of scholarly books.”

Garfield is director of the Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History, and the LLILAS undergraduate faculty adviser. This semester, he will teach the graduate seminar Postcolonial Brazil.

Q&A: Professor and Poet Kurt Heinzelman on Adelaide Writer’s Week

KH-Beggs photoKurt Heinzelman, English professor, founding co-editor of The Poetry Miscellany and advisor and editor-at-large for Bat City Review, has been publishing poetry for 30 years in such journals as Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Massachusetts Review and Southwest Review.

Recently, Heinzelman was invited as a featured author to Adelaide Writers’ Week, an important part of the larger Adelaide Arts Festival held annually in the South Australian capital of Adelaide and considered to be one of the world’s greatest celebrations of the arts.

The prevailing theme for the 2013 Adelaide Writers’ Week was the exploration of secret histories — covering topics as diverse as the ancient world, the British Royal Family, the Balkans, marriage, old age, video games, World Wars, folktales, art world scandals, court rooms, Australia’s convict past, wine making, Chinese food and afternoons on the beach.

Heinzelman answered some questions about poetry, his time at Writers’ Week, and his hopes for further interaction between The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Adelaide.

What poetic works of yours did you read and why did you choose those pieces for this festival?

I read two poems of modest length. The first, called “Visiting the Somme,” was about the battle during WWI and contained a reference to Gallipoli, a battle that still produces great poignancy among Australians. The second, called “Summoning Dolphins,” is an epithalamion, that is, a wedding poem, for my daughter and her Australian husband, and the poem contains many references to Australia.

While in Australia, you also gave a talk at the John M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice. Could you tell us a little bit about the subject of translation and originality on which you spoke?

The précis for the talk was this: Ever since the idea of originality in poetic composition underwent a sea-change in the middle of the 18th century, the way we evaluate translation has borne the burden of that change, with confusing results. Originally, the term “originality” meant exactly the opposite of what it now means. Instead of meaning “the absence of ancestral origins” it meant “having an origin,” being grounded in the authority of the past, in tradition. This radical transformation of originality — this “translation” of the term — is one of the great shifts of aesthetic value in the history of human creativity.

But translations, of course, are always belated; they always come after an original. Of course translations know their origins. As Walter Benjamin bluntly put it, “A translation comes later than the original[s]” and not “at the time of their origin.” What chance does a translation have of attaining value when what is most valorized is originality?

How we assess the value of poetic translations is the subject of this talk. Ironically, the one time we use the word “original” in its original sense is when we are speaking of translations. And yet there is some sense in which translations are original, in both senses. If a translation is by definition belated, each new translation is . . . well, new. Assessments of the value of poetic translations, however, often criticize them for failing to be “original” in one sense because they are either overly or insufficiently “original” in the other sense.

As part of Adelaide Writer’s Week, you hosted an interview with esteemed and prolific Australian poet, publisher and editor John Tranter. What sorts of subjects did you discuss? As a fellow poet, is there anything you found particularly enlightening in the interview?

I was curious why, with the substantial body of work that he already has, he decided to pursue (successfully, as it turns out) a Ph.D. in creative writing! We also talked at length about the way he takes already extant poems by writers from earlier epochs and recasts them into his own “versions.” It’s not translation or adaptation or even imitation but a form of counter-creativity. I read some of the original poems and then he read his versions so that the audience of some 100 people, a tribute to Tranter’s importance and popularity, could hear exactly how he reshapes the originals into his own creations.

What can you tell us about further interaction between the University of Adelaide and The University of Texas at Austin?

This summer one of our graduate students in creative writing will spend a week in Adelaide acting as a mentor to their students who are moving from a bachelor’s program to a doctoral one. We are hoping in the near future for collaborations with the music composition graduate programs in both universities. The journal, Texas Studies in Literature and Language (TSLL), which I edit, will be publishing essays from an international conference that Adelaide will be hosting in 2014 on John Coetzee’s work. Coetzee, a UT Ph.D. and Nobel Laureate and resident of Adelaide, has placed his archive in the Harry Ransom Center, and there may be a chance to do an exhibition sometime in the future, one that might travel to Australia.

What projects are you currently working on? Any subjects or themes you are particularly interested in addressing in future poetry or scholarship?

I have a new book of poems coming out later this year, my fourth, and I’m working on a new one as well. Plus, I’ve become the writing of what may be a critical book on what I’m calling “Kinship Poetics.”

Kurt Heinzelman has authored three poetry collections: “The Halfway Tree” and “Black Butterflies,” both of which were finalists for the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award of the Texas Institute of Letters, and most recently, “The Names They Found There,” which was named one of the best poetry books of the year by Poetry International.

Author and Scholar, Elaine Scarry, Examines Beauty and Fairness

scarryHarvard University professor and award-winning author, Elaine Scarry, will share insight into how society thinks and talks about beauty and social justice at an event hosted by the Humanities Institute. The talk will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. in ACES, AVAYA amphitheater, room 2.302.

In her book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” (Princeton University Press, 2001) Scarry not only defends beauty from the political arguments against it but also argues that beauty does indeed press us toward a greater concern for justice. Taking inspiration from writers and thinkers as diverse as Homer, Plato, Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch as well as her own experiences, Scarry offers up an elegant, passionate manifesto for the revival of beauty in our intellectual work as well as our homes, museums and classrooms.

j6675Scarry teaches in the Department of English at Harvard University, where she is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value. She has received many accolades, including the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism and honors from the American Academy of Science, National Humanities Center, Guggenheim Foundation and the Berlin Institute for Advanced Studies. Her essays have been included in Best American Essays three times, in 1995, 2003 and 2007. In 2005, Foreign Policy and Prospect named her as one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals.

She has published seven books, two edited volumes, and numerous essays. Her first book, “The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World,” highlights the impossibility of expressing pain through words. This important book went beyond an analysis of classic literary texts to examine philosophy, medical case studies, personal injury trial transcripts, and documents of torture compiled from Amnesty International. Fore more about her work, visit this website.

The event is sponsored by the Viola S. Hoffman and George W. Hoffman Lectureship in the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Fine Arts.

Renowned Poets Read and Discuss their Works at Spanish an Portuguese Symposium

Posted by Molly Wahlberg, College of Liberal Arts

2484997“Extrañeza, Extranjería, Migración / Estrangement, Foreignness, Migration,” a graduate seminar in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese that convened between Sept. 25 and Nov. 9, recently coordinated with the department’s annual poetry event “Poéticas para el Siglo XXI / Poetics for the 21st Century.” The centralizing theme for both the seminar and the event, which took place on Oct. 27 and was free and open to the public, was the ways in which poetic language confronts and incorporates a variety of differences provoked by cultural contact in contemporary Spain. ?

Internationally acclaimed poets Concha García, Ana Rossetti, Jenaro Talens, Bahia Awah, Limam Boicha, Clara Janés and Abderramán El Fathi led graduate seminar class discussions during their residence around topics of poetic production and reception in Spain today. ? ?

Before the first poet arrived, the students examined recent trends in Spanish poetry and began reading poetry and theoretical works on the seminar topic. The poets themselves have lead class discussions during their residence around poetic production and reception in Spain today. Graduate students have conducted interviews of the poets, which they will publish in a special issue of the department’s graduate student peer-reviewed journal, Pterodáctilo.

The symposium culminated in a thrilling three-hour poetry reading, in which Clara Janés and Bahia Awah participated via Skype from Madrid, while Rossetti, Talens, El Fathi, García and Boicha read to a packed house in the Chicano Culture Room. The reading marked the first time that a Moroccan poet (El Fathi) has ever participated in such a forum alongside Western Saharan poets (Awah and Boicha).

About the poets:

Two of the invited poets, Limam Boicha and Bahia Awah, are from the Western Sahara, but they now reside in Spain, where they have had a powerful impact on Spanish cultural life. They are founding members of the “Generación de la Amistad” (Friendship Generation) and maintain a blog, “Poemario por un Sáhara Libre” (Poems for a Free Sahara), which streamed the poetry reading live to Western Saharans living in refugee camps in Africa.

Abderrahmán El Fathi was educated in Spanish schools in Morocco and completed his PhD in Seville, Spain. He is currently chair of the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Tetuán in Morocco. His poetry, written in Spanish about Moroccan migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, earned him the Rafael Alberti Prize for literature in 2000.

Ana Rossetti, along with Clara Janés, Concha García and Jenaro Talens, is among the best-known living poets of Spain. Rossetti’s poems appear in every major anthology (and textbook), and they are taught in most US universities. A major figure of the Spanish cultural scene, Rossetti has written essays, novels, short stories, plays, an opera, song lyrics and fashion catalogue copy. In 2004, Jill Robbins, chair of UT’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, published an edited volume dedicated solely to Rossetti’s work: “P/Herversions: Critical Studies of Ana Rossetti.”

Clara Janés is a titan of Spanish letters. She has published 30 books of poetry, four novels, monographic books about composers, poets and cultural contact, a handful of plays, memoirs and more than 130 translations. She has received more than 10 prizes for both her literary work and her translations.

Concha García has published eleven books of poetry and has been the recipient of several literary prizes, including the prestigious Jaime Gil de Biedma prize for her book Ayer y calles.

Jenaro Talens, yet another major poet and important cultural figure in Spain is a professor at both the University of Valencia and the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Talens held a visiting appointment for 10 years at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He is the author of 23 books of poetry, along with scholarly monographs and articles in leading peer-reviewed journals about film, poetry and critical theory.

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to present “From Civil Rights to Human Rights” on Monday, Nov. 12

Attorney General Clark and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

Attorney General Clark and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

Ramsey Clark (Plan II, ’49), who served as attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, will present a talk titled “From Civil Rights to Human Rights” on Monday, Nov. 12, from noon to 1 p.m. in the Law School’s Eidman Courtroom. The event is free and open to the public.

William Ramsey Clark was appointed assistant attorney general of the Lands Division by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, when Clark was only thirty-three years old. After his tenure as assistant attorney general, Clark served as deputy attorney general from 1965 until 1967, when Johnson appointed him the 66th U.S. attorney general. Clark served as the attorney general until the end of the Johnson Administration in January 1969, and played an important role in the administration’s civil rights agenda, including supervising the drafting of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.

Following his term as attorney general, Clark worked as a law professor and was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He undertook two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in New York. Clark became an anti-war and human rights activist, founding the International Action Center, and speaking out against the United States’ 1991 and 2003 military invasions of Iraq. Author of New York Times best-seller “Crime in America,” Clark served as legal counsel to many controversial figures, including Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. In 2008 he received the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize.

Clark was born in Dallas. At the age of seventeen he joined the Marine Corps and served in Europe in the final months of World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in Plan II from The University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from the University of Chicago. After completing his education, Clark joined his father’s Texas law firm, Clark, Reed and Clark, where he remained until he was appointed assistant attorney general. Clark’s father was former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, ’22. Justice Clark’s papers are housed at the Law School’s Tarlton Law Library.

The talk is co-presented by the two centers at the Law School — the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice and the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law. Student organization co-sponsors include the Public Interest Law Association, the Texas Journal for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society.

Psychology Professor James Pennebaker Wins $10,000 Hamilton Book Award


James Pennebaker, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, won the $10,000 grand prize at the Hamilton Book Awards for his book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloomsbury Press , 2011) on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin.

The awards are the highest honor of literary achievement given to published authors at The University of Texas at Austin. They are sponsored by the University Co-operative Society.

In “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics – in essence, counting the frequency of words we use – to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints.

Two faculty members from the College of Liberal Arts received $3,000 runner-up prizes for their books. The honorees are:


Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Department of Sociology
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides?: Abortion, Neonatal Care, Assisted Dying, and Capital Punishment” (Routledge, 2011)

Circe Sturm, Department of Anthropology
“Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century” (School for Advanced Research Press, 20111)

The Hamilton Awards are named in honor of Professor Robert W. Hamilton, the Minerva House Drysdale Regent Chair-Emeritus in Law. Professor Hamilton was chair of the Co-op Board for 12 years, from 1989 to 2001, and was in large measure responsible for the Co-op’s uncommon growth and profitability during that period. Visit this website for more about the 2012 award winners.

A Q&A with Kathleen Marie Higgins, Author of “The Music Between Us”

978-0-226-33328-1-frontcoverFrom our first social bonding as infants to the funeral rites that mark our passing, music plays an important role in our lives, bringing us closer to one another. In “The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?” (University of Chicago Press, June 2012) Kathleen Marie Higgins investigates this role, examining the features of human perception that enable music’s uncanny ability to provoke — despite its myriad forms across continents and throughout centuries — the sense of a shared human experience. Her interdisciplinary and richly researched study showcases the ways music is used in rituals, education, work, healing, as source of security and, perhaps most importantly, joy.

Higgins, who is a philosophy professor at The University of Texas at Austin, recently answered some of our questions here at ShelfLife@Texas about the transcendent power of music – and how it is one of the most fundamental bridges in human society.

What is your musical background, and how did you become interested in the philosophy of music?

I was a music major as an undergraduate, playing piano and organ. I was especially interested in the way music related to ideas and culture more broadly, and taking a course in the music of India led me to start reflecting on the differences among musical traditions. I did graduate work in philosophy, but among my philosophical interests from the beginning was philosophy of music.

What are some modern discussions being held by philosophers who study music?

One set of issues concerns the ontology of music — questions about what constitutes music, musical performances and musical works. Another focuses on why music affects us so powerfully. Philosophers of music consider such issues as whether or not emotional arousal and/or expression is the purpose of music or whether these are simply byproducts; the basis for the connection between music and emotion; whether music that expresses given emotions also arouses these same emotions; and what the object of the emotion is in the case of emotion generated through music.

Philosophers of music also discuss the ways that music relates to ethics. Can it make us a better or worse person, and if so how? What is involved in musical understanding? For example, how much attention to structure is essential? How music is like or unlike the other arts? How music is like or unlike language? What is the proper basis for evaluating and valuing music? How and why music functions politically? And what does music reveal about our minds and our world? I’m tempted to say that music offers an angle on just about any topic in philosophy.

In the book you mention the qin, a Chinese unfretted lute, which is so sensitive that ambient air currents can produce sounds and even the grain of the musician’s fingerprints on the strings can be heard. What other unique musical instruments or musical techniques have you encountered in your research about the universality of music?

Probably the most interesting I’ve come across is a practice in one New Guinea society of putting drone beetles in one’s mouth in order to use one’s own body as a resonator for the sounds of the beetles. Another New Guinea people, the Kaluli, perform duets with various natural sounds, such as those of waterfalls and cicadas. The ghatam, a South Indian instrument, is a clay pot. One of the things I notice when I encounter instruments and techniques such as these is the tendency to find musical possibilities in materials and phenomena in everyday life.

I’m often struck by the various timbres utilized in music, whether produced by instruments or the musical voice. The first time I heard a crumhorn, I found the character of the sound rather humorous, even though the crumhorn was not designed for that purpose. I also find highly nasal vocal styles a bit comical, but in some cultures they are standard and highly prized. My reactions in these two cases makes it clear to me how much the musical practices of our own society determine what we take to be the norm, and how sounds that aren’t utilized (or utilized much) in those practice can strike us as aberrant.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in your book is “What’s Involved in Sounding Human?” At the risk of being reductive, can you explain some of the research you included in the chapter to answer the question, “What is it to sound human?”

The question itself suggests that human beings employ only a subset of the available sonic possibilities in music, and this is certainly the case. Not surprisingly, we make music in the area where the human powers of hearing are most acute. The octave above a note is treated as the “same” note in most respects. Human beings prefer intervals of relatively simple ratios of frequency vibrations, and the simplest (the octave and the fifth, in particular) tend to be prominent in most musical systems around the world.

Human beings typically make music in “pieces.” We tend to use a centering tone (called the tonic in the West), which is perceived as the tone of a scale that is the most stable, and other tones have various degrees of relative instability by comparison. Music tends to employ lots of repetition within a piece and within smaller components of a piece. There is some tendency in most musical cultures for musical utterances to end with a descent in pitch. All these tendencies show up virtually everywhere that people make music. Human beings have a signature way of making music, just as songbirds and humpback whales do.

What do you find most fascinating about the connecting power of music?

What interests me most about all this is the fact that even though music from another culture might be formulated on very different principles than the music we are most familiar with, and even though it might sound exceedingly foreign, it is geared to our perceptual faculties and is structured of patterns that can be recognized quite readily if one is familiar with the musical idiom. This is not to say that it is easy to “get” foreign music right away; some of our perceptual habits may even interfere, as when we are expecting one kind of tuning or rhythmic organization and encounter another. But it does suggest, and some experimental evidence bears this out, that we can improve in gaining an orientation in foreign music in a relatively short time. So we shouldn’t conclude from the fact that it is challenging that an unfamiliar type of music is foreclosed to us. The popular claim that music can communicate across cultural boundaries may understate the challenges in some cases, but the basic idea is right.

Are there any non-musical societies that we know of? Or are there societies scholars consider decidedly less musical than others?

No, it appears that music plays a role in every human society, and that it serves a cluster of functions (creation of social cohesion, emotional regulation, indication of socially significant occasions and promoting health, for example) virtually everywhere.

What’s next for you and philosophy?

I’ve been working on issues in the philosophy of emotions, in particular on the nature of grief. I’m interested in how grief motivates and is expressed through art and other practices that have an aesthetic dimension. Music plays an important role in this connection; lamentation is one of those ubiquitous ways that we humans use music. So although this new project isn’t about music as such, music will be a part of it, and no doubt other projects I pursue in the future.

New Writers Project Launches Touring Authors Series at BookPeople

panorama-city-by-antoine-wilsonThis October, the English department’s Master of Fine Arts program, now known as The New Writers Project, is kicking off a New Writers Tour featuring book talks by up-and-coming writers at BookPeople.

The first event will feature a reading and signing by Antoine Wilson, author of “Panorama City” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2012) on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. The book talks are free and open to the public. Go to this website for more details.

About the book: Open Porter, a self-described “slow absorber,” thinks he’s dying. He’s not, but from his hospital bed, he unspools into a cassette recorder a tale of self-determination, from village idiot to man of the world, for the benefit of his unborn son.?

Written in an astonishingly charming and wise voice, Panorama City traces forty days and nights navigating the fast food joints, storefront churches, and home-office psychologists of the San Fernando Valley. Ping-ponging between his watchful and sharp-tongued aunt and an outlaw philosopher with the face “of a newly hatched crocodile,” Open finds himself constantly in the sights of people who believe that their way is the only way for him.?

“Panorama City,” received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, calling it “fresh and flawlessly crafted as well as charmingly genuine.” And Peter Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner, described the novel as “filled with joy and wonder, and a sort of goodness you had stopped believing might be even possible. Antoine Wilson’s sentences are like diamond necklaces but his greatest treasure is his human heart.”

About The New Writers Project:
The two-year program is an opportunity for serious writers to study with established authors at The University of Texas at Austin. It’s a program where students lead their own workshops and are trained in a nationally ranked English department. With the guidance of award-winning faculty and visiting writers, students have an opportunity to focus on one genre (fiction or poetry) and complete a manuscript by the end of their second year.

“The New Writers Project recruits poets and fictions writers who are already showing great promise, and provides them with the time and space to continue developing their talent,” says Oscar Casares, associate professor in the Department of English and director of The New Writers Project. “As an extension of the program, The New Writers Tour features writers who have received critical praise but are still relatively early in their careers. Ultimately, this is about the discovery of talented writers and of where we expect them to be before too long.”

For more about The New Writer’s Project, take a look at their recently launched website.